Jenson Button: 'I don't make friends easily'
At a party at McLaren on Saturday evening, to celebrate Jenson Button's 200th grand prix which he subsequently won in fairy-tale style, Lewis Hamilton grabbed his team-mate, waved over a photographer, and posed spontaneously.
It was the perfect illustration of their relationship. The next day Hamilton, at one stage a likely winner, told the world that the better man had won.
When McLaren paired superstars Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, it was mixing fire and gasoline. It wasn't any better when Hamilton joined Alonso there for 2007. Explosions ripped the team apart. Not so Button and Hamilton, however. Their accord is genuine and hugely beneficial to the team.
"Lewis and I have had some good battles along the way and we've only touched once!" Button grins, referring to the moment in the recent Canadian GP, which he also went on to win, when inadvertently he put his team-mate out of the race. "We've had some really good fights, and overtaken each other a lot. That's the best type of racing. Lewis is tough, but we have respect for each other and give each other room to race, so we can pass and repass."
They demonstrated that again on Sunday, running wheel to wheel for several laps.
Inevitably, their pairing invites comparisons with Senna and Prost. Hamilton has all the fire and passion of his Brazilian hero; Button is the spiritual successor of the cool-headed, professorial Frenchman.
"I would agree with that," Button concedes. "I like such comparisons. Ayrton was perhaps quicker over a single lap, but Alain would win races because of other things. He might be quicker over a race distance, because he could look after his car and his tyres. He knew how quick you had to be to get to lap 60, when the chequered flag came out, not just until lap 30."
After Canada it was suggested that his drive there was more like the sort of performance one would have expected of Hamilton in similar circumstances, a point he flatly refutes. "No, I don't think I was any more aggressive than usual. To me it was exactly like any other win I've had. Don't you think so? I was in a situation where I could exploit the positives, but I didn't change my style at all. It was exactly the same as usual." Just as it was on Sunday, as his smooth style won through for the 11th time.
"It's funny," he reflects, "but I haven't had that many fights with Sebastian." On paper, Vettel is in the position Button found himself in during 2009, leading the world championship against mounting opposition. And like Button did, he's feeling the heat after a third defeat. "But there's definitely less for him than I had," Button points out. "He's already won the world championship, which is very important. You don't feel the pressure so much, when you've already done it.
"It wasn't easy for me to win consistently by the end of the year but he still has a massive lead. He has no need to take risks and he's driving a competitive car. Red Bull has great resources, so it's a different situation to the one I found myself in with Brawn. And if I had the lead he's got, I wouldn't be feeling any pressure at all! He's facing a nine-race world championship and he's starting it with an 80-point lead! That's a massive gap. And he's still in one of the quickest cars. That's the best position possible."
He says he's enjoyed his racing "a hell of a lot," since he won the title. "It's not the pressure other people put on you, it's the pressure you put on yourself to win. I still would love to win another world championship and that's why I am here. I don't think any driver who wins a world championship suddenly isn't interested in fighting for another."
He and Vettel have kept their feet firmly on the ground despite their success. So what's Button's secret to normality? "The people around you," he answers immediately. "I always bring good friends to races, friends from school, plus my physio Mike Collier, or my manager Richard Goddard, Dad, Jessica... People I know well and can trust. They pull me back if I start to step out of line."
And then this outgoing man says something unexpected, and a little sad. "I don't make new friends easily. I find it hard to trust new people."
Jessica Michibata, his Japanese model girlfriend, is an exception to that. "She really enjoys F1," Button says. He can often be found explaining the intricacies of tyre choice to her, because she genuinely wants to know. "She takes a lot of interest in racing and has a memory like an elephant, she soaks up information!" This support is crucial to his personal well-being, and theirs is a perfect partnership. They do triathlons together, too, though he's been confined to doing just weights recently after hurting his knee in a jet-ski shunt before the British GP.
John Button, the former rallycross star, is another cornerstone. The perfect racing father – there when needed, otherwise unobtrusive – he is amusing company, a man who puts the "p" in partying and simply loves racing. "He'd be here even if I wasn't racing," Button smiles. "He's more of a friend and he's not at all pushy. When we were karting he always said that if I wanted to have a rest or to give up, there was no pressure on me to keep racing. He was always shrewd enough to know that I won't do something if I'm pushed.
"Dad gets affected by a bad race more than I do. Me, if I have a bad weekend, I get over it. He finds it tough when I lose. But when I win he parties more than anyone else!"
Button is out of contract with McLaren at the end of the season, but even though he is highly likely to re-sign for another two or three years he's beginning to plan the future beyond driving. "I've got several more years of racing in front of me," he says cheerfully, "and all I am thinking about right now is the car and being the quickest. But exciting things could happen and while I'm not personally thinking too much about them, Richard is. We're looking at driver management and I think young kids will listen to me. I've seen the good and bad of racing."
His insight is important. "It can be a problem if the father isn't there because the kid can be different than maybe he should be," he says. "The best thing is to have a dad who understands everything, like I did. You can grow quicker without a dad there, perhaps, but maybe you grow up to be something you shouldn't be."
He also understands the importance of fitness, and the commitment necessary to succeed. "The latest cars are easier to drive than they used to be," he says. "But you've got to be fit. That's why I love competing in triathlons. I know I could never win one, but it's great to know that I'm still improving. And I'd really love to do the World Championship in Hawaii. That's an aim for the future. I'd have to qualify, and I'd want to do that properly, not just be allowed in. But that would have to be for after, when I stop racing."
It's surprising that the Tour de France doesn't also figure in his thinking, because he loves cycling. "I like the pain, it makes me feel alive," he grins. "Being with friends on bikes, up in the hills round Monaco, it is one of the best things in the world."
How Button compares
Most Formula One races started
Races (wins) Win %
1. R Barrichello (Br) 315 (11) 3.49
2. M Schumacher (Ger) 279 (91) 32.61
3. R Patrese (It) 256 (6) 2.34
4. D Coulthard (GB) 246 (13) 5.28
5. J Trulli (It) 244 (1) 0.40
6. G Fisichella (It) 229 (3) 1.31&
7. G Berger (Aut) 210 (10) 4.76&
8. A De Cesaris (It) 208 (0) 0
9. N Piquet (Br) 204 (23) 11.27
10. J Alesi (Fr) 201 (1) 0.50
11. J Button (GB) 200 (11)& 5.5